Civil Society Must Be at the Heart of a Renewed Transatlantic Solidarity


The new US administration offers the opportunity for a reboot of transatlantic relations, especially in relation to civil society. The calls and grievances expressed by Women’s movements, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the climate generation resonate strongly in both Europe and the US. These movements are central actors in a potential reconfiguration of the EU-US relationship. Their diverse and participatory nature, as well as the commitment to justice they embody, could form the foundation for building a new transatlantic narrative.


When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as the new leaders of the United States on 20 January 2021, many Europeans breathed a sigh of relief. But the fault lines in transatlantic relations remain. Biden cannot simply pick up where Obama left off. In addition to inheriting a society more divided than ever, a mountain of debt, and a political life mired in the pandemic, the new administration must deal with the consequences of a policy that turned its back on Europe. References to the stabilising and supporting role played by the US in forging the unity of Western Europe in the 1950s will not be sufficient to repair the damage. The trade war against Europe must be ended. And while Biden has earned plaudits for rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization, climate diplomacy must now be rebuilt and WHO reforms initiated.

A new narrative is needed that draws lessons from the past four years and ensures that the transatlantic project is fit for the future. This narrative rests on a common, constantly evolving understanding of democratic and open societies. While this is not an entirely new concept, in recent decades the transatlantic relationship has been dominated by the idea of a common security policy. This paradigm no longer holds. Societies on both sides of the Atlantic are changing, becoming more diverse and globally orientated. At the same time, we are witnessing the development of exciting new movements which have found strong resonance in both Europe and the US. These raise questions of great interest and importance for the future. Who are the people who can make this transformation happen? Who are the bearers of the transatlantic narrative upon which a living, evolving democracy can be built? And who are the citizens who, with great credibility, are fighting for a new inclusiveness in our democracies?

In recent decades the transatlantic relationship has been dominated by the idea of a common security policy. This paradigm no longer holds.

It’s all about civil society

Human rights violations, persistent injustice, and institutional failure – from a lack of opportunities for participation to mass discrimination as in the case of police violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPoC) in the US – are all drivers of civil society movements. Recent years have seen the emergence of numerous movements impressive in their scale and influence. The Women’s March, estimated to have involved more than 5 million protesters worldwide, was formed in 2016; the regenerative effect of the Black Lives Matter movement and its unifying power can still be felt today; and, following the actions of Greta Thunberg, the global youth movement for climate protection shifted the debate fundamentally. This is a civil society that gets politically involved and wants to see the same democratic promises implemented on both sides of the Atlantic – a just society in which they feel represented, and political institutions that address the problems of the future rather than simply deferring them. A civil society that stands for a plural, diverse public sphere defined by freedom of expression and respect.

The transatlantic appeal of these movements is a clear sign that the views and experiences of millennials, Generation Zers, and the climate generation, of women and the LGBTIQ community, and of marginalised groups need to be much more strongly and seriously integrated into an often elitist political discourse on transatlantic shared values.

Citizens engaged within and for democracy – that is civil society. And this civil society is a powerful driver of a new phase of democracy in the 21st century. Following the reconstruction of European democracies after 1945, the upheavals of 1968, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, we now see the development of a new, broader form of democracy. It demands both justice and participation beyond colonialist patterns of interpretation and a decisive solution to the climate crisis.

Today, the structure of civil society is more diverse than ever. Diversity is a requirement for the shaping of democracy. At the beginning of the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French nobleman and publicist, was fascinated by civil society in the young democracy of the United States. Democratic self-organisation that submitted neither to the laws of the market nor to the sovereign claims of the state but formed something “third” – the formation of associations at regional and local level strengthened and shaped the character of democracy. Europe, in contrast, was still deeply entrenched in monarchical structures. Its burgeoning civil society had a long struggle ahead of it. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, the picture changed. Emancipation movements fighting for recognition and awareness, such as the first women’s movement and the labour movement, brought about social change in favour of diversity and created new forms of public sphere. The 20th century was an “age of extremes”, the second half of which brought forth strong social, democratic movements which established networks both within Europe and across the Atlantic.

The long-established associations, think tanks, institutional relationships, and even twinning arrangements that have hitherto dominated transatlantic relations are being joined by new forms of civil society: spontaneous movements that come together on social media and on the streets, informal communities that build their own political safe spaces, interdisciplinary alliances that coalesce behind open letters, and activist opinion leaders on social media. National social discourses are being transformed into transatlantic and global ones. As these new movements determine their approach to politics and liberal democracy, now is the time to not only integrate them into the classical discourses of transatlantic exchange but also to challenge and change these classical discourses.

Democracies need diversity

The formation of the new Biden-Harris cabinet, with its diversity of views and experiences, was more than just a symbolic act. For the first time, the government team includes, among others, a Native American interior minister, Deb Haaland, a black defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and a transgender assistant secretary for health, Rachel Levine. A change which has long been visible and at work in society is being reproduced politically and specifically in terms of personnel. This can and must have an influential impact across the Atlantic. Representation within European administrations such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Bundestag needs to have a stronger focus on diversity. It is crucial that our institutions – and thus the transatlantic dialogue – reflect the diversity of our societies.

People’s political representation is just as important as the representation of their issues. A key step is the recognition that racism, discrimination, and sexism weaken democratic societies by hindering participation and are therefore central to debates on democracy. The threat to democratic public opinion from within due to extreme polarisation is at least as dangerous as the threat from outside from autocratic regimes. This is one of the most important lessons of recent years.  

The threat to democratic public opinion from within due to extreme polarisation is at least as dangerous as the threat from outside from autocratic regimes.

A broad range of experiences demonstrating how democratic resilience can be strengthened can be found on both sides of the Atlantic. Protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the March For Our Lives demonstration in support of gun-control legislation resonated deeply in Europe partially because they stood as symbols for the passionate defence of freedom, equality, and democracy. For the future, it will be a matter of converting this response into change, of effectively representing democracy-strengthening diversity in institutions and discourses – also in Germany and in Europe. This ambition opens up fields of learning on democracy and transatlantic exchange that have yet to be explored. Representation begins with greater diversity among event participants, leading on to representation within the executive – but it does not end there. It is not an end in itself, rather it is an integral element of democratic culture.

Putting civil society voices front and centre

Another important lesson for the transatlantic relationship is the regional anchoring of many civil society actors. Efforts to bring about ecological transformation within the relationship could, for instance, include a whole range of local organisations. An example is the Just Transition movement in former US coal regions. Under its aegis, environmental organisations, civil rights and climate activists, artists, and trade unions have come together to develop ideas for innovative social and ecological structural change.

A number of civil society organisations point to the links between environmental degradation, the colonial legacy, racism, and social disadvantage. The Concerned Citizens of St. John Parish initiative, for example, warns the Louisiana parish’s predominantly African-American residents about the health risks linked to chloroprene emissions from a chemical plant in the vicinity; the risk of developing cancer here is 50 times the national average.

Some of these groups already have transatlantic networks. The FridaysForFuture movement, for example, started in Sweden and reached its first high point during the September 2019 climate strikes when Greta Thunberg spoke in New York City. The annual Congressional Black Caucus conference in the US brings together black leaders, legislators, and citizens from around the world to discuss the political demands of their communities and the challenges they face.

The association, self-organisation, and political involvement of citizens is made possible by the freedom of open societies. Transatlantic exchange offers huge opportunities to put civil society organisations’ key themes at the top of the agenda. After all, it is these transnational networks in particular that build bridges across borders, expand mutual understanding, and strengthen a sense of shared values.

Strengthening transatlantic solidarity

Over the past four years, transatlantic solidarity has been a form of resistance against the prevailing isolationism and populism, disinformation, and disconnection from Europe for many US citizens. While Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, built a wall on the border with Mexico, and further fuelled divisions within society, solidarity grew within US cities, states, and across the continent. The joint “We Are Still In” initiative came together to commit to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement in spite of the actions of the 45th US President. Made up of 10 states, 293 cities and municipalities, and many others, “We Are Still In” is a valuable alliance that can now effectively leverage its transatlantic and global influence. Similarly, the work of the “Under2Coalition” founded by the State of California and the German State of Baden-Württemberg can now be intensified. Civil society and the institutions of representative democracy have a broad, common field of action here. At the same time, civil society is fulfilling its critical function, especially where lobby interests obstruct and delay progressive policies.

Transatlantic solidarity needs community, networking, ideas, and actors. It requires open spaces for controversial debate, and “interference” in established structures.

Moving forward together

Transatlantic solidarity means working together to strengthen democratic resilience, establishing solidarity structures to overcome the current health crisis and, in the longer term, taking to heart the lessons of the past four years. One of the most important is the fact that sources of change can be found at all levels of the political process, but most often among civil society actors. Strengthening their representation, addressing their issues, and making their voices heard should be a priority for the coming years. This includes action at the political level, including the implementation of concrete measures addressing both climate protection and social justice, the revival of joint institutions of cooperation, the creation of a joint EU-US regulation on hate speech and disinformation on the internet, and much stronger support for civil society, both financially and structurally. This primarily concerns those political actors working to revive the transatlantic relationship, who would be well advised to integrate new perspectives and establish new forms of dialogue. But it also concerns civil society actors themselves: transatlantic solidarity needs community, networking, ideas, and actors. It requires open spaces for controversial debate, and “interference” in established structures. It is no coincidence that the call to “build back better” applies to both the post-pandemic period and the transatlantic relationship.


This article was first published in the Green European Journal.